Monday, July 15, 2013

You've Survived the Firsts, so now Everything Must be Fine . . . Right?

The "firsts". If you've attended a wake or a funeral or  have read even one article or book on loss  (as the result of the death of a loved one, divorce, etc.) and grieving, you've surely heard or seen some reference to the "firsts". Common knowledge tells us that the first Christmas, birthday, anniversary, and Thanksgiving, etc, are the most difficult for someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially that of a spouse or a child.

Without a doubt, these firsts can be unbearably painful, as the absence of a loved one seems amplified -- if that's possible -- on these days that hold so many memories. A dear friend shared with me that she couldn't even get out of bed on her first wedding anniversary after the death of her husband; she called in sick and spent the day wrapped in blankets and a cocoon of pain. Another friend told me that the first Christmas after her 5-year-old son passed away was "just a tad less horrifically painful" than the day he died.

One by one, though, the "firsts" approach, are endured, and become part of the past. The last hurdle -- the first anniversary of the death of a loved one or of divorce -- passes, and life goes on. And the next year is better. Right?

For many people, myself included, the answer to that question has proven to be "no". In the past few years, I've had more than a few conversations about loss and the grieving process with friends, family members, and even complete strangers. At first, I was surprised to learn that I wasn't alone, and that others had struggled as much with grief the 2nd year after a significant loss as they did the first. Some people confessed that for them, the 2nd year was actually worse than the 1st. I must admit, I was also relieved to discover I wasn't alone, that I wasn't grieving "wrong", and that something wasn't wrong with me.

As the very-difficult 2nd year after the death of my husband grew to a close, I began to search for information on the 2nd year after a loss. I consulted numerous books, searched online, and read an untold number of articles, all of which stressed the fact that everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. That said, except for a few blogs here and there and a passing mention in a few other sources, I found little discussion of the 2nd year in the grieving process. It was almost as if there's an official-but-unofficial calendar of grief -- and there are only 12 pages on that calendar.

I'm not a psychologist or sociologist or any -ist at all, but I have a theory as to why the 2nd year proves to be so difficult. First, because it's common knowledge that "the first year is the hardest", a person who has faced a significant loss braces themselves for those "firsts". I know that I was on heightened alert, so to speak, as each red-letter day approached, and I tried to steel myself in order to get through the day. When that first year passes, however, it is as if the danger has passed, and we exhale a sigh of relief and let down our guard. That was the case with me, and when our 2nd anniversary arrived -- just 13 days after I had made it through the first anniversary of my husband's death -- I was shocked when I woke up to find that the grief and despair had returned in full force.

The second reason goes hand in hand with the first. Our friends and extended family members, also aware of how difficult the "firsts" are, were also on heightened alert on our behalf throughout the first year. Family and friends sent cards, called, went out of their way to spend time with me, or in other ways rallied around my children and I for each of the "firsts". But like me, they thought the 2nd year would be easier. They were, and rightfully so, busy with their own lives and not as focused on us. As a result, my support system was not as strong as it had been the first year; in fact, for most of the "seconds", it consisted of only my children, and they were grieving as well.

Another reason, I believe, is that during that first year, a person is caught up in the almost-unending details and tasks that result from the loss of a loved one or a divorce. Dealing with medical bills, insurance issues, and paperwork that seems to come from every direction consumes quite a bit of time. Even though all of this is a result of the loss, it can also somehow take the survivor's mind of the actuality of the loss. For example, I spent an untold number of hours deciding on the shape, design, type of lettering, and images for the headstone for my husband's (and eventually my own) grave. While I can't explain how or why, I do know that as I made these agonizing decisions, my mind was so focused on getting every single detail just right that I wasn't focused on my loss specifically.

Of course, another reason is simply that after a significant loss -- whether it is expected or comes completely out of the blue -- the survivor is in shock. Even after that initial shock fades away, many people say that for some time they operated in a fog or as if on autopilot. I know that was true for me; I barely remember doing many of the things I know for fact that I did that first year. I sold a house and 10 acres, for example, and I cannot remember receiving a contract, whether or not I negotiated at all, or even attending the closing. In my memory, one day I was living in our home and the next, I was packing to move.

In the past two years, several friends have lost a parent. After a few months have passed, I've made a point of sharing with them that they and their surviving parent may struggle just as much -- and maybe even more -- with grief  in the 2nd year than they did in the 1st year after their loss. Most of them express surprise, and I briefly explain in the hope that they will be aware that their parent -- and they themselves -- may need more support during the 2nd year than they previously thought and that they will react accordingly.

While there are several recognized stages in the grieving process, they don't follow a set progression or schedule and, as many of us have learned, there is no magical date on which grief packs its bags and moves completely out of our lives. So if some day 2 or 5 or even more years after that year of "firsts" has passed, grief comes roaring back as strong as ever, be gentle with yourself, do the (healthy) things you have found helpful in the past, and don't hesitate to call upon your friends and loved ones for support.

Speaking of support, one of the reasons I began this blog was to create a place where people who have experienced the loss of a loved on or of a marriage could share their concerns, fears, struggles with others who are traveling the same path and so that those who have comfort or advice to offer can do so. I hope you will share through by commenting below or, if you would rather share privately, by emailing me at I will, of course, protect your privacy, will only share your story with your express written permission, and will change your name and any identifying information if I do share here on the blog what you've written. 



  1. Wonderful post and so important. The first year is the shocker, so to speak and so it's all expected - the intense grief, sadness and pain. And then it's assumed that as time goes on, all the 'bad' feelings lesson and 'de-tensify'. But so often it can get worse as the shock wears off and the reality of the situation sets in. We have to start to incorporate the loss into our life, in all its aspects.

    A couple of years ago a very dear and close friend (the kind who's known you since you're a kid) shut the door on our friendship with no warning, no nothing. It's hard to fathom that someone you've supposedly been so close with can do such a drastic move without talking it out or even screaming it out. But my point here is that the first year I was in total shock. And now I feel my sadness and pain over it is even deeper and I feel it more since the shock has worn off and I can feel the loss so gravely; a loss of someone who has known you so well for so long has been plucked from your life.

    It's hard to find a place for it, to integrate the loss into your system. That takes time. And let's not forget that these feelings are an integral part of human nature. They will often rear their heads as things/events come up, but hopefully we can handle better with time.

  2. My step-sister lost her mother to cancer a few years ago, just a few weeks before she got married. I know that first set of anniversaries (both of the death and the marriage) were harrowing for her, but I know the following years have not been so much easier. I think it has been four years now and she just told me recently that the pain is more of an ache, finally.

    What you said about grief taking its own time is so true and so important. When I was recovering from my divorce I remember railing at my therapist that I was ready to be done hurting now, I wanted it to stop. She said it would stop hurting eventually, but I had to ride it out. I couldn't force it, but eventually it would fade. And it did, but it took so much longer than I ever expected it to.

    Another issue, I think, is that our communities start to get tired of hearing about our grief. The expectation that grief is time-limited is internalized, but it is also reflected back in the faces of people who just seem to be tired of hearing about your sadness. I quickly learned who I could talk to about how I really felt and who I needed to put up a false front for!

  3. Patti,
    I am always so touched by your blogs. This one particularly touches me. It was ((as of July 26th)) 7 years ago I lost my grand daughter, Marissa. It was a traumatic experience, everything that happened in that day before through that first week after her death, was one nightmare after another. My Son was hospitalized for PTSD, phoning me about the hospitalization, he sobbed for me to come to him. Even more, he begged, that I take Marissa with me when I would returned home. (He was very uncomfortable leaving the baby with her mother.) I was in my car traveling to the airport when I phoned my daughter-in-law to let her know when I would arrive, that she screamed Marissa was dead. The following days were filled with investigation after investigation by the military police, secretive meetings with me on their suspicions and concerns, consoling my son, dealing with Bob (the kids father), being held at gun point by the military police (that's a story in itself!) the list is endless, or so it seems.
    Last year, I finally came to a peaceful feeling surrounding Marissa and her brief life. It was as though the first 6 years evolved around her death... her death, not her LIFE! Last year, that turned. I began the healing of realizing the impact HER LIFE had on mine. And "that" was the start of a new relationship, a new mindset of Marissa. We celebrate her BIRTH... although we recognize the day she died, its her birth and life we joyously celebrate.
    There is so much more, but I've taken too much time on me.... I love you, and keep you and your beautiful family in my prayers.
    Thank you for sharing your very personal feelings!

  4. Harriet,
    I am so sorry for your loss -- the loss of a friend, particularly a long-time close friend, is really hard, I'm sure. The loss of that connection, that person who knows all the background stuff, who "gets" you -- that would be very hard. You're so right that the feelings are an integral part of human nature. And, of course, loss, which is part of life. Thank you so much for sharing!


  5. Dona B,
    Oh, how I understand when you say you were ready to be done hurting! Did you (like me) wonder when the events around your divorce (in my case, my husband's illness and passing) would stop replaying on a continuous loop in your head any time your mind wasn't occupied with something else? I remember asking a coworker who lost her husband 10 or so years ago when that would end. She smiled and said that for her it was almost 3 years; I almost cried.

    I think you are so right when you say that our communities get tired of hearing about our grief. Of course, not everyone, but in general society expects a person to move on. I'm going to touch on that a bit more in a future entry that I'm currently working on. Thank you so much for taking the time to share!


  6. Jana,
    What a horrible experience -- grieving your granddaughter on the heels of celebrating her birth and at the same time, your concerns for your son. {{hugs}} You make a wonderful point about how a loved one's death becomes the focus, particularly if it's unexpected or tragic or the person was very young, and how it's so important to get to that point where their life is the focus again. I so appreciate your sharing this. Bless you, my friend.


  7. Hi Patti! Thanks so much for sharing your personal story and feelings. This is going to be so helpful for grieving folks.

    I worked as the bereavement coordinator for our local hospice for 3 years. I received training that was great and really helped me understand grief and mourning better. As a policy, I kept in contact with our bereaved family members after the death of a patient for 13 months to get them over that "year of firsts" as you talk about. I so wish we could have done more and longer but funds were just not there to do so. You are so right about the 2nd year being harder for some...I had never thought about it before. This blog of yours is so needed right now and hope that you will continue to share as you have.

  8. Paula,
    Thank you for sharing your experience (and for serving grieving people as you did -- that had to be very difficult at times) and for your kind words!